The Truth About Driving Distance

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Dear Frank,
 
I really appreciate what you are doing for the game. I know you addressed this issue in your book, Just Hit It, but do you still think we need to be unconcerned about the distance pros are now hitting the ball? Do you think there is an end to this increase in distance and, if not, what will the USGA have to do to control it?
 
– Sean

 
Sean,
 
Thanks for your kind comments and for buying my book. I am pleased you enjoyed it.
 
You have pushed another one of my hot buttons so let me clear up a few things about a very real problem.
 
The problem is not that the pros are continuing to increase their driving distance, but that people think they are doing this. This perception is based on marketing and the over-dramatization of distance being portrayed by the media. Yes, we have seen – reinforced by several replays and without appropriate explanation – extraordinary feats by a few individuals able to drive the ball in excess of 380 yards. The fact that the ball rolled three to four times farther than normal because the conditions were conducive to such long drives, is rarely discussed, as this would take away from the 'Wow' and 'You-Da-Man' factor.
 
The problem – which will not go away – is that many viewers, some of whom are concerned golfers and even administrators, treat these extraordinary feats as common place.
 
Sean, the laws of nature have limited the distance a golfer can drive the ball given a specific clubhead speed, and clubhead speeds are not getting much faster unless you go to the circus or long-drive competitions.
 
So here are the facts. The chart below shows how the PGA Tour's average driving distance has changed since 1968 – distance data was not recorded between 1969 and 1980. The big jump came between 1995 and 2003 when spring-like effect in drivers was permitted to avoid litigation.
 
The multi-layered ball and spring-like effect – commonly referred to as increased COR (Coefficient of Restitution) – has allowed pros to launch balls higher with less spin, creating optimum launch conditions (i.e. a unique launch angle and spin rate for a particular ball speed to achieve the maximum distance given average turf conditions). These conditions were not achievable by Jack Nicklaus or others of his era with the equipment available to them at the time.
 
It was predicted some 10 years ago that when these optimum conditions were met, the average distance would level off. Now, the only way to increase distance is to increase head speed – and we all know what happens when we try to kill the ball. Tiger’s clubhead speed is not measurably faster than Jack Nicklaus’ was 45 years ago, so we shouldn’t expect a dramatic increase in average clubhead speeds on the Tour in the near future.
 
I think the graph below speaks for itself. Neither you nor any others need to be concerned unless we consider the anomalies to be the norm. Mother Nature has taken control of distance.
 
Driving Distance on PGA Tour chart.
The average driving distance on Tour has changed very little the last few years.

 
Sean, as far as the average golfer is concerned, we have not seen significant improvements in distance over the last 15 years or so. This is in spite of all the new technology introduced and advertising claims that every new club will increase your distance 15-20 yards. If that were the case, most of us would be driving the ball at least 300 yards by now.
 
The laws of nature do not change at midnight on December 31 every year. So don't expect any significant improvement in distance from a new club compared to last year's model.
 
However, if you have not upgraded your driver in the last seven years then it is time to consider a new one, or even last year's model, which will save you some money.
 
Sean, the USGA does not have to be concerned about distance increases anymore, but you can be assured that this issue – which is now more than 100 years old – will not go away any time soon. For more facts about equipment and the game, be sure to register as a Frankly Friend for my FREE weekly updates.

Share your experiences with your driver by taking part in our 'Frankly The Best' Driver Survey. You'll be able to check back on our findings and will be entered to win a custom-built Frog Putter and a consultation with Frank.
 
Frank
 
Frank Thomas logoFrank Thomas, inventor of the graphite shaft, is founder of Frankly Golf. Thomas is chief technical advisor to GolfChannel.com. He served as technical director of the USGA for 26 years and directed the development of the GHIN system and introduced the Stimpmeter. To email a question for possible use in an upcoming Let's Be Frank column, please email letsbefrank@franklygolf.com
 
Frank Thomas